The more formal name of Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress of the Tower of London is probably a better representation of what you will see if you visit the Tower of London. It is actually a castle complex with several buildings and not just a tower as you might expect when you first hear the name. It is certainly one of the busiest tourist locations in London and has quite a fascinating history. Enjoying a tour by an expert guide dressed in colorful clothing will provide you an understanding of the almost one thousand year history of the Tower of London.
Construction of the Tower began in 1078 and the castle was enhanced and modified over the following centuries. The complex served as a castle, fortress, prison, and palace, but today it is a museum that is visited by hundreds of tourists on a daily basis. In 1240, King Henry III made the Tower of London his home and whitewashed the Great Tower, which is now called the White Tower. He also added a church, great hall, and several other buildings. It truly was a castle that was fit for a king.
Although it was considered a prison, it was really more of a place where prisoners were held before being executed. There is even an executioners axe and block on display from the time when crowds would gather to watch people being beheaded. One of the most famous executions, of which there were many, was of Queen Anne Boleyn in 1536. As it was also a fortress, one of the sights you will see when touring the complex is the armory. Seeing all of the weapons will give you a sense of the history of the instruments of warfare as well as the knights with their suits of armor.
It is hard to believe that it has been over a decade since we visited London, but certainly the Tower of London was a highlight of our time there. Not surprisingly, it was rainy while we were there, but we did have a great view of the Tower Bridge as well. With its interesting architecture as well as its complex and interesting history, the Tower of London should be on the itinerary of anyone planning a visit to London.
Almost everyone we spoke to about what to do during our visit to Dublin recommended us taking a tour of Kilmainham Gaol. Kilmainham Gaol is a former prison in Dublin that has been converted into a prison museum. It has been used as a set for many movies including In the Name of the Father and Michael Collins as well as many others. The tour was very interesting and provided a lot of detail about the prison and prisoners, especially the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising. The prison held almost every leader of the Irish revolutionary groups until it was shut down in 1924 by the Irish Free State.
We almost weren’t able to take the tour of the prison as we didn’t purchase tickets in advance and the tours sell out several days, if not weeks, ahead of time. Since the tours were sold out, the hotel recommended that we go to the prison about an hour before the first tour time and there would be a chance that we could get last minute tickets. We weren’t the only people who didn’t have tickets and the staff did their best to accommodate everyone who waited in the cold, wet morning air. Purchasing tickets in advance is highly recommended.
The tour starts off by taking you through the oldest part of the prison, which dates back to 1796. This is where many of the leaders of the uprising were held by the British, who ran the prison. One of the things that was interesting was that they didn’t segregate the prisoners, so men, women, and even children were all locked in cells that held up to 5 people. Also, there was no lighting or heating in the prison, so the prisoners were given a single candle per cell for light and a little warmth. One of the highlights of the tour is when you enter the more modern section of the prison with its large common area. Everyone on the tour has the opportunity to enter one of the cells and get a closer look at the cramped conditions.
Originally, there were many hangings outside of the prison, although later the leaders of the rebellions were executed by firing squad inside of the prison square. It seems odd at first that a site of such suffering and oppression could become a popular tourist attraction. Understanding the sense of national pride that the people of Ireland have for all of the leaders who fought for independence and were imprisoned and lost their lives in the prison, makes the experience of touring the prison much more impressive.
We thoroughly enjoyed taking the time to visit the prison and were certainly glad that we did, but we’re not sure that Kilmainham Gaol is the top tourist attraction in Dublin. It is definitely something that anyone who visits Dublin should take the time to see, but we would recommend reading some information on the history of the prison and the various uprisings prior to taking the tour as it will enhance your experience.